Lymphedema is a condition in which damage to the lymphatic system causes the arms or legs to swell to several times their normal size. It also presents the potential for massive infections from even the smallest cuts or inflammation of the skin.
Lymphedema is not as rare a condition as it was once thought to be. Recent estimations place the figure at 1 to 2 million Americans, plus another 250 million worldwide.
What Causes Lymphedema?
For some, lymphedema is genetic. Others acquire it following treatment for other diseases, predominantly cancer. Roughly half a million breast cancer survivors acquire it from surgery or radiation that destroys lymph nodes in the armpit region. Others acquire lymphedema in the legs after lymph nodes in the groin area are destroyed by surgery or radiation for treatment of melanoma and prostate cancer.
The lymphatic system (specialized vessels through which a clear protein-rich fluid flows) is an under-recognized, but crucial part of our circulatory and disease-fighting system.
Some physicians have called it the “garbage hauling system” of the body. In the bloodstream, much of what we call blood is actually plasma, a clear fluid. When one sprains one’s ankle, much of the swelling is actually plasma that seeps out of micro capillaries into tissues around the injury. Most of this fluid is then reabsorbed into the bloodstream through small blood vessels. A small part of the fluid called “lymph” is picked up by lymphatic vessels instead, which carry it to a duct in the chest region which dumps it back into the primary bloodstream circulation. The lymph often contains bacteria, dead white cells which fight infection, fats and sometimes cancer cells that have been shed from a cancerous tumor. If one has normal lymph nodes, this debris would be filtered out. When lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels are damaged, there is no longer an area for lymph to flow. As fluid builds up, any cut or opening in the skin can ultimately result in infection or inflammatory processes such as cellulitis.
Lymphedema provides a veritable feast for resultant bacteria invading the system. Each infection can lead to scar tissue further damaging the lymph vessels which ultimately results in chronic recurring lymphedema and/or cellulitis.
What is the Treatment for Lymphedema?
Normal lymph nodes assist the lymph in moving throughout our body. A damaged lymphatic system loses it’s ability to pump or move lymph fluid, thus resulting in a lymph build-up.
So, the question is, how does one get this stagnant fluid in a limb past the damaged vessels, back into the primary circulation? Elevating the swollen arm or leg can help, but at times is impractical.
Most experts recommend using Sequential Pneumatic Compression Pump therapy. The Bio Compression Pump and arm or leg garments mimic the lymphatic system. It’s ÒmilkingÓ effect promotes lymphatic flow by moving fluid in a distal to proximal (physiologically correct) direction.
The physician would write a prescription that would include the pressure setting, duration and frequency of treatments, and would normally recommend a local dealer to supply and instruct the patient as to proper use and care of the equipment. The Bio Compression Pump is intended for use in practically all settings, especially the home, due to it’s small size and light weight. The pump is easy to operate and can be used while reading, watching TV, or just resting. The pump delivers gentle compression and massage which tends to also be very relaxing.
The doctor would evaluate the patient at each visit and discuss the progress made. The doctor may change the pressure settings, frequency and/or duration of treatments as one’s condition improves.